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With Jacobs looking to loosen virus restrictions, local task force set to meet Tuesday

The county mayor said Monday if everyone else is opening, "all we are doing is burdening our businesses here with more restrictions."

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — With Gov. Bill Lee ready to loosen business restrictions this Friday in most Tennessee counties, a local group of leaders is set Tuesday to talk about their next steps.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has signaled he'd like to follow suit with the rest of the state this Friday. Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, however, is more cautious.

Knox County and Knoxville currently are limiting restaurants right now to being open at 50 percent capacity. That "phase one" action plan has been in place since May 1 and goes for 28 days.

Retail stores also have been cleared to reopen.

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Lee's office announced Friday he was ready to release such capacity limits starting Friday, May 22, for 89 counties in the state -- excluding larger counties such as Knox, Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties.

Lee's plan to ease limits affects neighboring counties such as Blount, Sevier and Anderson.

Knox County has seen generally single-digit daily increases in positive COVID-19 cases in recent weeks; no resident has been hospitalized with the virus since Friday.

Jacobs reacted Friday to Lee's announcement by saying he couldn't see why Knox County "can't follow suit. The reality is that tens of thousands of our neighbors are out of work and small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open, so we must keep pushing forward. Knox County is in a great position to do this because we are lower risk than the rest of the State and we continue to trend in the right direction."

On Monday, he reiterated the need to get back to business with conditions looking so promising.

He said Monday the Health Department ultimately makes the call about easing restrictions.

"When we look at other counties in our area, if everyone else is opening up and has less restrictions than we do, really, all we are doing is burdening our businesses here with more restrictions," he said.

The task force meets Tuesday afternoon to talk about potential changes.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said Monday that recent data "looks really good right now." Officials are currently reviewing plans and guidelines for a second phase of reopening.

Knox County is trending "downward" in its virus case data, she said.

As for Jacobs' statement, Buchanan responded Monday, "We're looking at that data, and we'll be using our benchmarks to help guide our decision as to what we do regarding phase two."

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon issued a statement Monday afternoon. She said if "favorable trends" continue, she expects to shift to the second, more permissive phase on May 29.

“There is no prize for going fast when it comes to reopening our economy. Business owners want clear guidelines for how to protect their customers and their employees, and they want a predictable timeline, so everyone knows what to expect and how to plan," the statement reads.

“The Knoxville-Knox County Reopening Task Force is surveying the community for input on Phase Two guidelines. This week, the task force will take that input, along with public health data, and finalize guidelines for Phase Two. Our local health trends look favorable now, but it’s important to remember that the Health Department is monitoring the data daily, and it’s too early to draw conclusions just yet. We should stick with the plan that is working."